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What Happens to the Menendez Foreign Relations Staffers?

With Menendez stepping down, changes are coming to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. But what does this mean for staff? (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

When scandals strike a senator, what does it mean for his staff?  

Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., is temporarily stepping down as ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Even the most steady of staffers could be questioning what this means for their futures. And what does it mean for future staffers, especially those who want to intern for the committee? Hill Navigator discusses.

Q. I recently applied for three congressional internships: Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, my very senior senator, and my pretty new congressman. Now, initially, this was my sequence of preference, especially given that my degree is in the Middle East and Int. Relations, but a certain high-profile indictment has left me reconsidering the committee (and wondering if they will have time to process my application, as it was submitted to his staff), and my congressman's office upped the ante by offering me a spot as a "legislative fellow" handling his portfolio for the Armed Services Committee. Given the choice between an internship at a committee related to my field, but in the middle of controversy, a regular internship at big-name senator's office, or a "legislative fellowship" doing what I assume to be real work and getting a bit of face-time with an admittedly lower-ranking congressman, which do you think is the best option?
A. Ah, the dreaded, “my boss is stepping down, what does this mean for staff ?” query.  

First, congratulations on having options and a good sense of what you want to do on Capitol Hill. That, alone, is an asset that will serve you well in any role. But how to differentiate between competing offers? Here are some points to keep in mind.  

1. A committee in transition can be difficult for staff, but it can also be a time for great opportunity for those willing to take on more work and pitch in. Acting ranking member Benjamin L. Cardin's, D-Md., office confirmed he plans to keep current committee staffers in place. So those staffers aren’t likely to see major changes, at least not in the immediate future.  

Menendez stepping aside is a “temporary” move, and staff may stay put until they have a better idea if and when the former boss is coming back. Although the last time a committee chairman temporarily stepped aside — Rep. Charles B. Rangel, D-N.Y., handed over his gavel  on the House Ways and Means Committee to Rep. Sander M. Levin, D-Mich., in 2010 — he never got the top seat back. Levin remains the top Democrat on the committee to this day.  

2. The best internship is one where you will work on issues you care about, with people who care about your future. When you interview with these offices, how invested are they in the staff? Will they help you seek full time employment when your internship is over? Do they have a habit of hiring internally? Or will this be a 2-3 month stint and then you’re on your own, perhaps with a letter of recommendation  and a bullet point on your resume?  

3. Titles are powerful commodities on Capitol Hill. While committee work and senior senators can adorn a resume beautifully, having a title that directly connects you to legislative work can be very effective for making a move to a long-term legislative position, especially if you do not have extensive work experience and are hoping to skip over the entry level positions.  

So what does this mean for you, the aspiring career climber? This is a decision based on what you want your internship to entail and what you want your next steps to be. The quickest path to a paying Capitol Hill gig is likely through the substantive committee work for your congressman. The fanciest résumé boost might be through the senior senator. And the biggest gamble — with the option of the greatest reward — is through the committee in transition.  

Whatever you do, be sure to keep those contacts up, though. Turn down the two remaining internships with grace and follow up with a handwritten thank you note. Tough elections happen, scandals come and fortunes have a way of changing overnight . Even the most well thought out of choices have a way of turning unpredictable. Good luck!  

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